SOCHI, Russia – On Friday morning, I traveled to downtown Sochi, which is a 30-minute train ride along the Black Sea from the Olympic Village. It was sunny and 55 degrees, the kind of weather we long for in the spring back in Buffalo.
People walked happily along the main promenade, their overcoats slung over their shoulders, as a legion of soldiers and police stood guard at regular 50-yard increments, watching warily for any sign of suspicious activity.
On the train ride, you could see the sunlight reflecting off the sea on one side; out of the other you could see the majestic, snow-capped Caucasus Mountains rising just 30 or so miles off in the distance.
It was a stunning contrast, one that had me contemplating the two sides of Russia, the contradiction between its rich history and culture, and its dark political history over 70 years under Communist rule.
As a lover of Opening Ceremonies, I wondered how Russia would handle its big moment later that night, how it would reconcile the stark contrasts in its character. Would it rise above issues of intolerance and corruption, delivering a performance that left the world agape in admiration and awe, a night that honored the precious Olympic ideal?
A part of me didn’t want Russia to come through. Maybe it was the little boy in me who lived in fear of a nuclear attack half a century ago. Or the adult who considers Vladimir Putin a puffed-up bully who represses dissent and had the temerity to pass a law against gays shortly before the Games.
Besides, I had gushed about China’s ceremony in 2008, saying it couldn’t be equaled. Then two years later, I decided that London had measured up to Beijing and in some ways passed it. So I was prepared to look harshly on the Russians, like some biased figure skating judge.
But they won me over, anyway. The Opening Ceremony was an artistic triumph, a celebration of Russia’s history and culture and the Olympic dream. Again, I was reminded that each ceremony has its own distinguishing glory and that it’s foolish and futile to compare them.
It wasn’t perfect. The lighting of the Olympic rings didn’t go off as planned.
Any objective critic of Putin had to be a little chagrined to watch a show that magnified his vision of Russia as an emerging democracy that is regaining its status as a dominant world power.
But the charm of the Opening Ceremony is its ability to rise above the petty objectives of leaders and governments, to squash our capacity for cynicism and make the talk of dreams sound less like a cliche than a reality.
I’ll say this about Russia’s night in Fisht Stadium: It was so mesmerizing, I totally forgot any concerns about security. I wasn’t aware that a passenger on a flight for Istanbul had claimed to have a bomb on board and tried to divert the plane to Sochi.
The beauty of the ceremonies is that they’re mainly conceived and executed by our better angels. I’m always left thinking what a great world this would be if they allowed artists, women and children to run it.
The people who create the shows always play on the idea of children’s optimism and innocence. The Chinese did it. So did the British. The guide for Russia’s ceremony was Lubov, a heroic young girl whose name translated to “Love.”
Lubov led the spectators on a journey through Russia’s history and culture, starting with their unique alphabet and highlighting the country’s vast geographic diversity, its folklore and mythology, its proud military tradition, its love for art, music, literature, dance and, naturally, its sports.
I can’t imagine how terrific it looked on television. Seeing it on a flat plane, from a press box, didn’t do it justice. Taking an occasional look at a TV monitor, I suspected it was a tableau best appreciated from above.
One of my favorite parts of an opening ceremony is the Parade of Nations.
I love geography and flags. It’s moving seeing the tiny delegations march in proudly along with the larger, more dominant Olympic countries. Godspeed, Tonga! Knock ’em dead, Cyprus! Cool, successful runnings, you Jamaican bobsledders!
The Russians added a few welcome twists to the parade. They put it early in the program, rather than at the end. It was a great idea. Putting the parade at the end forced the athletes to wait and diminished the march’s grandeur.
Also, they had the athletes walk in from underneath the floor, instead of the sides, giving them a grand entrance into the middle of the stadium.
There was a powerful sense of the athletes rising up. It also gave each nation a more singular appearance. Each delegation was led by a white-clad female in high boots that made her seem 7 feet tall. Nice touch.
The nations departed from two sides, taking their seats in the stands across from Putin’s box, where they watched the rest of the spectacular performance unfold. Troika, an iconic, horse-drawn carriage, pulled Lubov across a stormy sky, with the sun emerging behind her.
In the next scene, a group of military officers from the time of Peter the Great danced in “Natasha Rostova’s First Ball” with stars from the Russian ballet, who portrayed some of the main characters from Tolstoy’s epic novel, “War and Peace.”
As the dancers merged, columns rose up from the floor of the stadium as 77 male servants came out bearing drinks and candelabra, while a light snow fell outside the ballroom.
The “War and Peace” ball was a highlight for me. To my mind, literature and dance are Russia’s two greatest gifts to world culture. Some of the reporters in the press box were even applauding at the end.
They jumped ahead to Moscow/The Dream, which celebrated the Industrial Revolution and the building of a great city. Workers hammered at steel as images of modern skyscrapers rose in the stadium.
After Putin declared the Games officially open, a burst of red, white and blue lights flashed through the stadium. Then Diane Vishneva, the noted Russian ballerina, led a bunch of birdlike dancers in a transporting rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
The final performance, before the lighting of the flame, was “Olympic Gods,” a tribute to Russia’s athletic greats. Dozens of skaters rushed onto the floor, their suits illuminated in bright white lights. Overhead, a galaxy of winter sports figures hung in the sky.
It was a salute to the athletes, connecting them to the Olympic gods. It seemed a bit grandiose, but it was a reminder that we care deeply about sports because they can elevate us and reflect the best in mankind.
All in all, it was a marvelous show. If the Brazilian organizers weren’t feeling the pressure after London, they’re surely feeling it now.